“Mom, is it going to snow today?” Alex’s four year old son, Ever, asked for the third time that day.
“No, baby, not today.” She answered as she put another plate into the dishwasher. Never mind that it was the middle of June. She had tried explaining the seasons and the weather conditions needed for snow to form too many times to count. Her preschooler, however, remained unimpressed with her scientific explanations and continued his hopeful inquiry day after day. And never mind that even if it was the middle of winter, they lived in Southwest Florida. The last time it had snowed even remotely close to their little town was 1899. But this had proved an even more futile conversation.
“Well, it doesn’t snow in Florida, Ever.” She had answered him on another occasion when he had asked the expected question.
“It never snows in Florida?” He asked, perplexed.
“No. Well, I guess it does every once in a while but only way up in the northern part of the state.”
“But we live in the States.” Ever had answered, proud of
himself for recalling what he had been learning in preschool.
“Yes, we live in the United States. But it only snows once in a great while in our state, which is Florida.” She said unsuredly starting to feel the confusion she was causing.
He thought about this for a minute, then declared with mounting excitement,“So, it doesn’t snow in the United States,but it does sometimes snow in Florida, which is where we live, so it might could snow today!” He ended his little monologue with a little jump of enthusiasm that Alex could not bring herself to diffuse. So she resigned herself to the fact that she would be asked if it would snow every day for the rest of her life, and contented herself with planning a trip for them for the winter, somewhere in the United States where it did in fact snow on a regular basis.
Her brother lived in Michigan. He always talked about how nice it would be if she lived closer. She was planning on surprising Ever with a trip to see them for Christmas where he could finally see snow. Or earlier, depending on how long her nerves could handle the daily weather forecast requests. She thought the excitement of seeing snow may also help him accept the news that they themselves would be moving to Michigan.
“Can I go play outside?” Ever asked, waking her from her thoughts of their move.
“Sure thing, just don’t go into the wild without me, okay? I’ll be out there in just a minute after I finish up here,” she said, reaching for more dishes.
She smiled faintly as she watched him skip out the back door. He reminded her so much of his father, who had passed away just a year ago. Their backyard had been one of his last home improvement projects before he had gotten too sick to work.
“I want our kids to be able to enjoy being outside as much as possible,” he said when he started the project. He loved the outdoors, and he had loved living in Florida. “You can literally be outside in paradise everyday,” he would tell people. When others would complain about the heat, humidity, and storms that defined their region and only escalated as spring and summer rolled around, he would tout the Scandinavian quote, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” Then, he would add with a wink, “and bad attitudes. It’s only when you see how Nature works together that you begin to see her beauty, even in her most severe faces.”
He had put his soul into building their backyard. It was their own secret garden with pathways and arbors. He included plenty of room for Ever to run and special places for him to climb and explore. He had carefully landscaped with native plants and trees, with special places built in to accommodate the local wildlife. He installed bird baths and feeders,special plants that he knew would attract pollinators; even a bat house was erected. He left a couple dead trees that were far enough away from the house not to be a hazard, knowing that they were popular with woodpeckers and bees and many others looking for shelter. He had also left a large area in the back of their property to be “wild” he had said. “In case a panther decides to visit. He will feel more safe if I leave something for him to hide in.” The endangered and elusive Florida Panther rarely made an appearance anywhere anymore, but Scott’s hope was contagious.
Once you made your way through the thick saw palmettos and pine trees toward the very back of the “the wild,” as they came to call it, there was a small lake. It was their own subtropical paradise. It was Scott’s favorite part of the property. He would often take Ever back to the lake and they would look for the magnificent wading and water loving birds. The anhinga, the great egret, and blue heron were frequent visitors. In the cooler months, they could find the wood stork or catch a pink glimpse of the spoonbill scavenging in the shallower, wet parts of the property.
Their friends thought they were crazy for leaving such a “hazard” on the property. “Aren’t you worried about snakes? And that pond is just attracting mosquitoes. What if Ever falls in or an alligator is living in that water. All that brush is going to attract so many pests.” Valid concerns, but Alex and Scott both knew the risk. And they knew it was worth it. They were conscientious parents and they took great care teaching their son how to be safe without being fearful, to appreciate the interwoven mural that was nature and to respect the forces she could wield.
“They all play an important part you know.” Scott told Ever one day as they all sat on the porch. “The snakes,the alligators, even the mosquitoes. It’s often the things we see as pests or inconveniences that are bringing the most good. Even the hurricanes have some good to contribute.”
So the yard Scott had carefully created collided with the wild left as nature intended, and it was a masterpiece. They spent more time outside in the yard than in the house, and they loved hosting friends and having bonfires under the stars.
Houses went up all around them. Machines ripped through the earth and plowed down trees. Developers made queries into their property. They were made many considerable offers for their back property. But Scott was impassive to their bargaining. He was convinced more than ever that it was their responsibility to preserve their slice of paradise and protect the life they attracted.
Then Scott got sick. It had happened so fast. Two short weeks passed between the diagnosis and the death bed. But Scott met his death with the same graceful optimism he met all of life's trials with.
He had asked to have hospice care at home, so he could die in the one place he loved most, at home, outside. When he had passed, Alex wasn’t sure her heart would ever heal. But the sweet needy presence of her son kept her anchored to the present and loving him kept the tide of grief from pulling her under completely.
Though she had learned to survive her grief, living in the house where they had built so much together became unbearable for her. The yard felt empty without him. The wild felt obtrusive. And when she looked out over the lake all she saw were memories of Scott reflected back. She wasn’t sure she could continue living so close to the pain. She knew Scott would disapprove of her decision, but she also thought he would understand that it was just too painful for her to continue on living where she was constantly reminded of his death.
Just yesterday, she had contacted one of her brother’s friends who was a nearby real estate agent to help her negotiate with the developers for a quick sell. Ever had overheard her on the phone, and had stared at her and said in a distressed tone,
“But what about the panthers, Momma? They won’t have anywhere to go!” Her sorrow spilled out in cynicism. She snapped out the words.
“There are no panthers here, Ever.They're all gone.” But she checked herself as she saw tears filling his eyes. She hugged him quickly, and said “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. It’s going to be okay.” And it will, she thought. Once he sees the snow in Michigan, he’ll understand and it will all be okay. His words had stayed with her all day though, and now, as she pushed the dishwasher closed, she began mulling over her decision once again. Her deep thoughts were interrupted as Ever burst back into the house.
“Mom, it's snowing! It’s snowing!” He said, jumping up and down, white dust all in his hair and falling off his clothes.”
“What?” Alex said, confused. “What is that all over you? What is that smell?”
She ran outside. White specks were indeed falling from the sky. She held her hand out and watched, horrified as the tiny flakes gathered in her hand.
“It’s snowing! It's snowing!” She heard Ever’s joyful chant behind her, but she felt only dread.
“Ash,” she whispered, half hissed, feeling her chest constrict. She jerked her gaze to look toward the back of their property- the wild side. It backed up against forest land that had just sold to one of the developers. Wildfires were a common occurrence, but they had managed to escape the worse in all of the years they had lived there.
She saw dark clouds billowing out of the top of the thick forest. It was still miles away, but the ominous darkness was quickly eating up the blue sky. White foggy smoke had already descended, encasing everything. It had been surprisingly dry the past couple of weeks. Just a quick turn of the wind would bring the flames careening towards them.
She coughed, the stinging in her throat and eyes kicking her into action.
“We have to go, Ever. Come in the house, NOW!” She grabbed her phone and saw the notifications piled up. “Mandatory Evacuation: Green Blvd to Palmetto Street.” That was them. How did I miss all the signs and the alerts? She thought. It didn’t matter now. All that mattered was getting Ever out of the fire’s way.
The next few moments were tense. She moved about in a hurried daze. She didn’t know how she remembered what papers to grab or what to throw in their duffle bags, but within minutes they were heading out the door. As she headed to her car, a policeman pulled in to offer his assistance. She threw one final, tortured look back over the house, scanning the yard that had meant so much to them. As she drove away, following the policeman’s cruiser, she struggled to see his flashing lights for the smoke and the tears.
They were on their way back home. They received the news that it was safe to go back two weeks ago, but Alex put off returning, dreading what they would find. She braced herself for the destruction she knew awaited them. As they drove, she tried to prepare Ever for the worst, but as they pulled in, he jumped out of the car and ran towards the backyard. The firemen had been able to save most of the house, but their backyard paradise had given way to the flames and everything lay covered in thick oppressive ash.
“Ever!” Alex called as she chased after her son. He was stopped at the edge of the wild.
“It’s soo...” He started.
“I’m so sorry, honey” She said as she put her hand on his shoulder.
“It’s so beautiful.” He finished.
“What did you say?” She looked at him in bewilderment.
“It’s… it’s so beautiful. It looks like winter, and there’s the snow. And you can see the lake now.”
She looked over the charred remains of their little forest. Soot clung to the blackened limbs and burnt leaves. Destruction dusted palm fronds limply swung in the breeze. Ash covered fallen trees rested on the ground. The wild looked naked and skeletal compared to the thick green and lush wood it had been a couple weeks before. So much of the underbrush had been burnt away that they could just see a glimpse of the lake in the back of the property. She had to admit it was hauntingly beautiful.
“Look, there!” Alex suddenly shouted, pointing to the ground. Smeared in the ash and the sand were several large paw prints.
“A panther?” She gasped feeling the wonderment welling inside her. She followed the tracks to what was left of the thickest part of the wild. There she saw small green shoots of new plants just peeking up through the char and debris along the ground. Suddenly, she gasped as she saw a large tawny-beige body
moving past a cluster of charred stumps and tree remains. She held her breath as the creature stopped, and two yellow sorrowful eyes met her own before it turned and fled into the blackened forest. She knew then that she was going to stay. The wildfire had burnt away the brush and revealed something she had almost missed. There was still life here.
When she called the real estate agent to let him know her decision, he asked her what had changed her mind.
“I thought you were moving to Michigan. What made you decide to stay?” he asked. She stopped for a moment and looked out the window over the yard and the wild. It was quickly filling in with new growth and life. Then her gaze rested on the little boy running in the yard.
“Oh, uh, the snow...” she said. “The snow changed my mind.”